Military history


24 June – The noose tightens

On 23 June General von Schlieben had been appointed Commander in Chief of all troops in the Cherbourg area, taking over from Cherbourg’s commander, Generalmajor Robert Sattler. Von Schlieben had requested reinforcements, but ships could not be found and Allied planes dominated the skies above Normandy; the port was cut off by land, sea and air. On the morning of 24 June, VII Corps headquarters intercepted General von Schlieben’s message to Seventh Army Headquarters. It would be his last. Contact with the rest of the German forces in Normandy would be severed shortly afterwards:

‘Communication with several battalions no longer available... Heavy bombers attack on Fort de Roule and flak positions... Phosphorous put eight batteries out of action. Unlikely to regroup artillery today... Tomorrow heavier attacks expected... Enemy attacks SW of Rouges Terres and Le Gilloy... Entire harbour contaminated. All informed... Completely crushed by artillery fire.’

Exhausted soldiers grab a moments rest during a lull in the fighting. NARA-111-SC-191151

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Captured documents, reports from prisoners and other intercepted messages all contributed to von Schlieben’s tale of woe.

General Collins’ verbal orders for 24 June reinforced the plans outlined several days earlier. The Regiments on the flanks of the Corps, the 60th and the 22nd, would continue to confine German troops operating around Cap de la Hague and Maupertus airfield, while the rest of the Corps concentrated on breeching the ring of forts around Cherbourg. With the help of the Air Force and heavy artillery concentrations, 9th Division would seize the hills southwest of the city, while 79th Division’s cleared la Mare à Canards south of the port. Now that 4th Division had finally shaken itself free from Bois du Rondou and Bois de Coudray, it was ready to advance onto the high ground overlooking Tourlaville.

9th Division

Изображение выглядит как колесо, транспорт39th Regiment had moved up on the Division’s right flank overnight and 2nd Battalion’s first task was to clear the remaining entrenchments around Le Saussy. Company E captured the anti-aircraft position on the summit of Hill 151 at an early stage but it was forced to retire when a supporting artillery battalion began shelling the position. It was an unfortunate misunderstanding. Before long the German crews had returned and turned their guns on 2nd Battalion. Company F’s commander requested permission to retake Hill 151 but he was assured that 47th Regiment was about to attack the summit.

3rd Battalion had been advancing on the Regiment’s right flank, making progress under heavy fire along the wooded slopes overlooking the Divette stream. Engineers were supposed to repair a bridge over the stream to allow Lieutenant-Colonel Stumpf to cross but it was evident that the Germans were intent on holding the far bank. Colonel Flint ordered Stumpf to withdraw from the stream and join the rest of the Regiment on the summit of Hill 171. The move brought Stumpf’s men into contact with some hidden machine gun posts on the edge of Bois du Mont du Roc and Company I found itself under heavy fire. The German positions were too close to shell with artillery so Stumpf called up his armoured support and as the infantry fanned out to locate the enemy posts, tank-destroyers moved into position, destroying the machine guns one by one. Company I searched the undergrowth after the firing stopped and discovered that naval and service personnel had manned the machine guns. The rest of the woods were found to be clear of enemy troops and although the attack on Hill 151 had been stopped, Colonel Flint was pleased to report that Bois du Mont du Roc had been taken.

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Two rifle grenadiers of 39th Regiment creep up on a German strongpoint; note the ‘AAA’ insignia on their helmets. NARA-111-SC-190795-S

In 47th Regiment’s sector, 2nd Battalion was making good progress, finding an abandoned headquarters and barracks complex to the west of Nouainville. However, Major Schmidt’s advance came to an abrupt halt when anti-aircraft guns positioned on the walls of Fort Neuf, spotted his leading company. The battalion was in an exposed position, silhouetted on the skyline and although tank-destroyers were available, a second strongpoint near Hainneville opened fire as they moved forward: ‘2nd Battalion is advancing and getting a hell of a lot of direct fire on left flank.’

After helping to clear Bois du Mont du Roc, 3rd Battalion waited for orders to advance onto Hill 151 and while a misunderstanding with the artillery was cleared up, snipers began to infiltrate Clayman’s assembly area: ‘3rd Bn CO desires to know when the start will be made, having a battle in its CP [command post] right now.’

The artillery barrage failed to silence the position on the summit of the hill and Clayman’s men were stopped in their tracks by the deadly anti-aircraft guns.

While 47th Regiment and 39th Regiment struggled to advance onto Hill 151, 60th Regiment was preparing to clear the high ground north and west of Flottemanville-Hague. 3rd Battalion continued to watch the roads leading towards Cap de la Hague peninsula as the rest of the Regiment waited for their supporting barrage to begin. In the meantime, the Germans had been preparing their own attack and at first light Colonel Rohan was alarmed to hear that Lieutenant-Colonel Kauffman was calling for assistance to deal with a threat to his position:

‘A field right across our front is full of Germans, We are putting fire on it and want a Cub plane to observe for us, for artillery fire.’

Company I moved forward to reinforce Hill 180 as the rest of the battalion prepared for action. They faced a long wait. The German attack failed to materialise and after several hours of inactivity Kauffman requested assistance from the Reconnaissance Troop: ‘Believes Jerry in front of them wants to give up and are ripe for propaganda.’

Rather than moving forward to attack, the German soldiers were looking to surrender and following negotiations, 1st Battalion sent their prisoners to the rear.

The need to advance appeared to have disappeared but as Colonel Rohan ordered his men to hold their positions, General Eddy had other plans. Strongpoint 19 was directing fire onto 47th Regiment’s flank and Rohan was ordered to clear it to break the deadlock.

Throughout the morning tanks had been seen and heard moving around the strongpoint and Colonel Rohan made sure 3rd Battalion had plenty of its own armour before it advanced. While the tanks of Company B, 746th Tank Battalion moved forward towards Strongpoint 19, their commanding officer found himself in an unusual predicament:

‘At about 13:00 twenty friendly aircraft strafed the CP killing several of the American soldiers. At that particular time Captain Pay was at the regimental aid station having his foot treated. He had been having trouble with an infected foot for the past week or so. All the aid men as well as all the personnel hit their foxholes when the attack came. Captain Pay was left stranded in the open with his sore foot in a bucket of water. He survived the attack unharmed however.’

3rd Battalion moved towards Tonneville while M10 tank-destroyers engaged Strongpoint 19 with indirect fire. Company L made the final assault and although the Shermans were supposed to blast the pillboxes apart while the infantry cleared out the maze of trenches and bunkers, the tank crews were reluctant to move in close:

‘How much have you put into 19? It seems a little better there...’

‘... Tanks are in there, one or two knocked out’

‘Send your tanks in to clean them out...’

‘...They don’t like to go in. Tank Destroyers will go in, 3rd is using Tank Destroyers.’

‘Commit a company; clear pocket. If you get into 19 it will relieve pressure on friend. Clear pocket.’

As 60th Regiment engaged Strongpoint 19, General Eddy decided he could wait no longer; 39th Regiment would have to advance without waiting for 47th Regiment. As soon as his G-3 officer gave Colonel Flint permission to advance towards Octeville, his Regiment was on the move: ‘Bridle is off. Drive through 17 and 18 – not necessary to keep contact with unit on left.’

Company E worked its way past Fort Neuf but the rest of 2nd Battalion was brought to a standstill by small arms and mortar fire. A short artillery bombardment convinced the Germans to surrender and as soon as bulldozers had cleared the road past the fort, tanks joined 2nd Battalion as it engaged bunkers on the outskirts of Octeville. 3rd Battalion moved up alongside but, for now, 39th Regiment’s advance had been stopped. The artillery was too far away to fire a concentrated barrage and by the time the 34th Field Artillery Battalion had moved forward to new positions, darkness had fallen:

‘... rolling barrage is finished; it is too close and none too accurately gauged... Artillery firing at extreme range, too dispersed. Forward observer controlling rate of barrage. Called off artillery, too close in.’

A radio operator relays coordinates to the artillery. NARA-111-SC-190859

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Despite the ineffectiveness of the barrage, as Company G moved into Octeville, dozens of Germans emerged waving white flags. Even though the road into Cherbourg lay open, Colonel Flint was ordered to dig in and wait until 47th Regiment was in position.

Once 60th Regiment had cleared Strongpoint 19, 47th Regiment resumed its advance only to find that the artillery was having problems identifying targets. German troops were listening to the observers’ radio frequency and interfering with the usual method of reporting an accurate shoot. One observer explained how it was affecting the barrage:

‘When smoke is called for they have thrown smoke out of their positions about the time the smoke is due. It misleads the observer, makes him think he is registered in.’

By the time the problem was resolved, the forward companies had already advanced beyond the crest of on to Hill 151 towards Redoubte des Fourches. With daylight failing, Colonel Smythe was ordered to dig in for the night and let the artillery shell the fort into submission.

‘...we will not enter the town tonight but will stop on the best commanding ground outside the town and will send patrols in. We will make every attempt by questioning of prisoners and civilians the condition of the town, and we will keep him [General Eddy] informed.’

79th Division

Attempts to capture two strongpoints covering la Mare à Canards had been thwarted by poor coordination the previous day and General Wyche reminded the Air Force liaison officer that one of his company’s had broken through the German line and was dug in northwest of the target. As heavy and medium bombers targeted the two German positions, 314th Regiment advanced to within striking distance. 2nd Battalion closed in on Point 34, and with the help of flamethrowers cleared the pillboxes, taking sixteen prisoners. 3rd Battalion reached Point 33 at the same time, and once again the GIs found that the Air Force and artillery had silenced the 88mm gun emplacements; ‘...enemy positions were cracked, troops dazed.’ It was perfect example of how a coordinated assault could break an enemy position and it allowed 314th Regiment to join Company A overlooking Cherbourg harbour in record time. An after-action report sums up how combined tactics developed during the Cherbourg campaign:

‘Best results were obtained when air bombardment took place when the assaulting troops are not more than 1,000 yards from the target, and when they moved in rapidly as soon as the bombardment was over. Since even this limited advance required valuable time, it was found best to cover the target with light artillery fire until the attackers had advanced to a point not more than 400 yards from the target, at which time the heavy artillery concentration could be delivered, followed immediately by a rapid advance of the infantry. When such tactics were employed, success invariably followed. If, on the other hand, air bombardment took place at too great a distance from the attacking troops, it was found habitually that the defenders had the opportunity to recover and man their positions before the attackers could arrive. In the final assault, tank destroyers and 57mm guns, if they could be spared from their primary role, were found most useful in firing at the apertures of strongpoints to cover the advance of the demolition parties.’

Soldiers and civilians celebrate on board a captured German tank. NARA-111-SC-190813-S

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The Air Force had a similar degree of success on 313th Regiment’s front, allowing Colonel Wood’s men to make rapid progress towards la Glacerie. 2nd Battalion led the advance, working closely with Sherman tanks to clear pillboxes overlooking the Trottebec valley.

As 79th Division moved closer to the port, General Collins and General Wyche visited Colonel Robinson headquarters to study 314th Regiment’s next objective, Fort du Roule. The Napoleonic fort was perched on top of a steep sided cliff overlooking the port and over the past four years Organisation Todt had brought the fortifications up to date. To reach the fort 314th Regiment would have to cross a steep sided valley, laced with barbed wire entanglements and minefields and capture Point 44, a strongpoint protecting the only access. Tanks would not be able to reach the position until the engineers had cleared a way across a stream and an anti-tank ditch. The final approach to the fort, a narrow promontory, had been cleared of trees and undergrowth, creating a killing zone for the pillboxes and mortar pits beyond. Fort du Roule was a perfect example of defensive engineering and it would test Colonel Robinson’s men to the limit.

GIs make themselves comfortable in a German bunker.

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3rd Battalion ran into heavy fire from Point 44 as it advanced into the valley. Machine guns and 88s on the far side of the stream stopped Company I in its tracks, wounding Captain Petras as he led his men forward for a third time. Anti-aircraft positions on the Octeville heights had a perfect view of 2nd Battalion’s advance and enfilade fire forced Lieutenant-Colonel Huff to abandon his attempt to cross the stream; air and artillery support would be needed before 314th Regiment could reach Fort du Roule.

As 313th Regiment approached the heights overlooking Hau Gringor quarry, 2nd and 3rd Battalion spotted dozens of German artillerymen abandoning their guns and running for cover. Some turned to fire on Wood’s men as they struggled to find a way through belts of barbed wire protecting the artillery positions and brought the advance to a halt. While the Regiment regrouped, patrols investigated the cliff top finding a large number of artillery emplacements; 313th Regiment would eventually find two 170mm guns, three 155mm howitzers, several smaller guns and a huge stockpile of ammunition. 3rd Battalion led the advance into Hau Gringor village later that evening, driving the German artillerymen before them. The GIs showed no mercy and in the words of the Regimental Diary the rout ‘afforded excellent shooting for the BARs’, 320 prisoners were eventually rounded up in the nearby quarry.

4th Division

Изображение выглядит как текст, мебель, коврикFollowing 12th Regiment’s overnight push towards Tourlaville, 8th Regiment had fallen behind as it struggled to drive Kampfgruppen Koehn from the high ground overlooking the Trottebec valley. The Air Force paved the way and as zero hour approached Colonel van Fleet’s men marked the two German strongpoints with purple smoke.

2nd Battalion had taken over from the shattered 3rd Battalion in front of Strongpoint 190190 (named after its map reference) and once the fighter-bombers had flown over, Lieutenant-Colonel MacNeely’s men crawled as towards their objective while 29th Field Artillery Battalion shelled the strongpoint. The artillery was firing only six rounds a minute to minimise the chance of ‘friendly’ casualties but as Company E drew closer, Lieutenant Rebarchek was concerned that the shells were falling too close to his men. The artillery observer ordered his guns to lift their range for the final salvo; it proved to be a fatal error. The gunners misjudged their range and the smoke shells intended to cover as Company E’s assault, exploded beyond the target. There was no time to rearrange the barrage; Rebarchek’s men would have to take their chances:

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GIs clear and occupy a German anti-aircraft gun position.

‘Company E, with bayonets fixed, advanced through the orchards and over the next hedgerow where they received terrific fire from the enemy positions. 1st Platoon reached a small hedge just short of the line of barbed wire, and from this position silenced a 40mm gun that was in a concrete pit at the road fork, but they were unable to advance any further. 3rd Platoon on the right, stopped by fire from the front, was ordered to move farther to the right behind a second hedgerow. They passed through another orchard and entered a wheat-field beyond the hedgerow behind which they intended to advance.’

3rd Platoon faced six machine guns and when 2nd Platoon tried to outflank the position, the Germans were waiting for them: ‘The Krauts came up and threw everything but their shoes at Company E.’

As casualties mounted, Rebarchek crawled back to the mortar platoon and radioed Battalion Headquarters for armoured support. Lieutenant-Colonel MacNeely informed him that Company B, 70th Tank Battalion, was still operating with the 1st Battalion; Rebarchek would have to try and hold on until they arrived.

Meanwhile, the fighter-bombers had paved the way for a surprising success on 1st Battalion’s front:

‘At 11:00 twelve P47s dropped twenty-four 1,000lb bombs on the strongpoint in front of 1st Battalion; twenty-three bombs hit the target. Immediately the enemy troops came out of the fortification and started running across the fields, where they were slaughtered by mortar fire. The strongpoint, which had been a tough nut the previous day, was taken without further trouble.’

1st Battalion overran the position in record time allowing Company B, 70th Tank Battalion, to withdraw and move to support 2nd Battalion.

Company E held out for three hours in front of Strongpoint 190190, suffering grievous casualties as they waited for the Shermans to arrive. Eventually, Rebarchek conceded defeat and decided to pull his men his men back and regroup:

‘About 14:00 Lieutenant Rebarchek decided that his company was being pounded to pieces for no purpose and since he had received no answer to his request, he withdrew his troops behind the hedgerow 200 yards south of the road fork. Here they were still under heavy fire from the front and right flank. 88s, a battery of 100mms and several 20mms were still firing at them from 200 or 300 yards, in addition to mortars, machine guns and rifles.’

Only forty made it back.

When the Shermans eventually located Company E, the tank commander refused to get out of his tank into the hail of bullets. In frustration Rebarchek climbed onto the platoon leader’s tank and shouted directions through the open hatch. With Rebarchek hanging from the turret of their platoon leaders tank, the Shermans started to move followed closely by the depleted Company E. As the tanks crawled towards Strongpoint 190190 they found that Germans were waiting for them:

‘As soon as the tanks came into view, the 88’s opened up on them. One tank had its track knocked off and the others stopped. It was some time before Lieutenant Rebarchek could get them to move forward again, but when they did they broke the enemy position. One tank came up on the left of the 88 at the house, whereupon nine Germans at that position and at the road fork put up white flags. Two tanks on the right swung behind the hedgerow on the enemy left flank; the Germans then fled north to the road, and then marched down towards Company B in columns of twos, all carrying white flags.’

Forty men surrendered to Company B, leaving behind a huge arsenal of weapons and ammunition. When 2nd Battalion searched the position, they found four 100mm artillery pieces, four 88s, one 40mm and five 20mm AA guns, mortars, machine guns and over 200 rifles.

While 2nd Battalion cleared Strongpoint 190190, the Germans had counterattacked 1st Battalion’s as it regrouped. Lieutenant-Colonel Simmonds was arranging artillery support when disaster struck; a shell exploded in the centre of 1st Battalion’s headquarters (a line of foxholes dug into an embankment), killing Simmonds’ and wounding several staff. As a junior officer tried in vain to convince the artillery that he was in desperate need of support, Major-General Barton arrived on the scene. With no time for formalities, the General grabbed the phone and shouted down the receiver; ‘... this is Barton, I want all the artillery I’ve got to fire on ...’ and gave the coordinates. The surprised radio operator responded immediately and minutes later a deluge of shells scattered the German attack.

Soldiers take a well-earned rest having cleared a German strongpoint. NARA-111-SC-190979

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Lieutenant Rebarchek’s Company suffered heavy casualties in front of Strongpoint 190190

The fighting on 8th Regiment’s front began to die down as the light faded and as the Germans melted away into the wooded Trottebec valley, 3rd Battalion surrounded a number of entrenchments. It looked as though the Germans would surrender without a fight but as G Company commanding officer persuaded the German officers to lay down their arms an unfortunate incident occurred:

‘Captain Wilson was negotiating with German officers for surrender, when someone in G Company fired. Germans cut down, and killed Captain Wilson and wounded several men.’

12th Regiment closed in on Tourlaville while Company K cleared Digosville to the rear.

On 12th Regiment’s front Colonel van Fleet was hoping to clear the high ground overlooking Tourlaville. Undercover of darkness 1st Battalion forded a stream across their front, followed by six Sherman tanks, and moved as close as they dare to a line of German strongpoints southwest of Digosville. Fighter-bombers flew over at sunrise and although several overshot their target, dropping their bombs on 1st Battalion’s position, the aerial bombardment shattered the Germans’ morale. The strongpoints were quickly overrun and 225 prisoners were taken, many of them coastal artillerymen and naval personnel. As the battalion regrouped, the headquarters company came under fire from a farmhouse. A group of determined fanatics had let the infantry and tanks bypass their position, preferring to strike at the soft vehicles of the rear echelon unit. Three machine guns had pinned down Major Johnson’s staff and they threatened to disrupt 12th Regiment’s advance on Tourlaville. Two tanks were recalled to convince the Germans to surrender, but after they refused Johnson decided to force the issue. Two prisoners accompanied the tanks as they moved towards the farmhouse and although the Germans inside held their fire, they still refused to surrender. As the Shermans pulled up in the farmyard their 75mm guns opened fire, reducing the building to a smouldering ruin. Thirty-five men ran from the rubble; they were all gunned down by the tanks’ machine guns. As 1st Battalion regrouped, 2nd Battalion took over the advance and by nightfall it had secured its objective, a complex of bunkers on the final ridge overlooking Cherbourg.

While the rest of the Regiment moved towards Tourlaville, 3rd Battalion supported 22nd Regiment as it attacked Digosville and despite poor coordination between the two Regiments, the infantry worked its way forward covered by four Sherman tanks. Twelve P47s paved the way for Company K’s final assault, and once again the air strike broke the Germans’ morale. Many fled towards Maupertus airfield but by dusk Lieutenant-Colonel Merrill’s men had rounded up 150 prisoners and six artillery pieces.

For the second day in a row, Colonel Luckett decided to send troops forward under cover of darkness but as 3rd Battalion moved forward to rendezvous with Company A, 70th Tank Battalion, disaster struck. As scouts escorted Lieutenant-Colonel Merrill and two of his officers forward, a Sherman accidently fired on the group killing Merrill and seven of his men. It was the second time the battalion had lost its CO in as many days.

A Sherman tank makes its way past two knocked out Panzer IVs. NARA-111-SC-191371

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Nine Shermans, with half a dozen men clinging to their turrets, led the advance into the village of Tourlaville while the rest of the battalion marched alongside. Kampfgruppen Koehn had already withdrawn into the city of Cherbourg and by midnight 3rd Battalion had taken the western end of the village. Colonel Luckett’s plan to penetrate deep into the enemy lines had succeeded; 12th Regiment was in a position to advance into the city alongside 79th Division. As it began to grow light the GIs in Tourlaville waited expectantly for the Germans to retaliate. The attack never came; the only German troops in sight were medics searching the hillside above the village for wounded. The road into Cherbourg lay open.

Fires burn out of control as German engineers destroy the port’s facilities. NARA-111-SC-191030

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